Tuesday, 30 May 2000

John dos Passos: The 42nd Parallel (1930)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 515

The first novel of the famous USA trilogy presents a picture of that country from the beginning of the century until 1917, when the US declared war on Germany. (The trilogy as a whole continues until the early 1930s.) In these novels, dos Passos created a new literary style, frequently admired if rarely imitated, in which documentary style clips are used to create background, to relate the characters to political and economic events and to make the novel seem to be a panoramic picture of the state of the nation.

Each section of the novel is divided into recurring pieces. The longest piece of each section forms the main story, and is basically a narrative about one of the main characters. Then there are newsreel sections, which contain headlines and clips from newspapers, often fragments of sentences as though what you read is an impression gained from flicking through a paper very quickly. There are also pieces summarising the lives of men and women who had a formative influence on their times, such as Thomas Edison. The most interesting pieces, though most difficult to take in, are the 'Camera Eye' narratives, which are also fragmented, and are basically stream of consciousness style snippets of description grouped together more or less randomly.

The end product of reading this novel is a feeling of atmosphere. The plot is not important (and, indeed, practically non-existent); characters may be well drawn, but their purpose is to illustrate the times in which they live. The way that the novel is put together is so clever that it can achieve this without using reams of description. The major problem is in the newsreel sections, because the material selected there presupposes a fair amount of knowledge of American politics in the first few years of the century. Headlines are not helpful in creating an atmosphere if you have never heard of any of the people mentioned.

Of the imitators of this trilogy, both the most successful and the one who has followed dos Passos most slavishly is John Brunner, in his series of dystopias. He has actually used what he has taken from the USA trilogy in a more fundamental way. Because he was writing science fiction, the whole background had to be invented, and Brunner used the documentary portions to establish parts of that background (such as slang expressions, bits and pieces of future mass media) picked up on in the later narrative portions.

The 42nd Parallel is more an extremely extended description than a novel in any traditional sense; its sections do not lead anywhere in particular, and the lack of plot means that the various characters are not integrated for any purpose (some of them meet, but that is all).

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